Post-Growth Planning for Post-#COVID19 Times

Back in 2009, at the height of global financial crisis, John Lovering in a hard-hitting editorial in International Planning Studies declared that, finally, it had happened.

The recession marked ‘the end of planning as we had known it’. There was no going back. The neoliberal model of urban policy-making, “it’s inequities, it’s harmful social and cultural effects, it’s disastrous impact on the environment and its economic unsustainability” was dead.

Except of course, like previous crises, it wasn’t.

Phoenixlike, the strange non-death of neoliberalism emerged unfazed. The Irish planning profession, anxious to deflect from its complicity in the Celtic Tiger and unsure of what else to do, slavishly followed along as every manner of idiotic mass tourism hotel, student housing scheme, build-to-rent apartment development, co-living unit and high-rise office block was approved, each testament to the parasitic power and private fortunes of international capital wrapped up in some Orwellian supply-side doublespeak of what is good for us.

Fast forward ten years, and there has been much talk again recently, in light of the COVID19 crisis, of the urgent need for a deep structural change in the planning and organisation of our urban environments. We have seen some promising signs in this direction as cities across Europe, including Dublin, seize the opportunity to repurpose streets from private cars to pedestrians and cyclists – initiatives long held back by reactionary interests – and a greater acknowledgement of the real value of green spaces, clean air, noiselessness, social cohesion and nature in urban liveability. These may be temporary but demonstrate what is possible.

The pandemic has also laid bare the recrudesce of a planning system that has once more been reduced to a reactive, short-term and opportunity-driven activity which is likely to see the our cities littered with overcapacity and stranded assets.

The economic impact of COVID19 is, as yet, unknown but projections suggest it is likely to be severe and turbulent. As in 2009, the planning profession is about to be again sharply thrust up against what is probably its chief intellectual weakness – what to do when the land market is rendered largely inoperative? In such a situation the pattern of land-use will have to be determined administratively, but planning, as a body of knowledge, offers no ideas as to how this might be done. Paralysis ensues.

Like all cultural shocks, the COVID19 disruption presents liminal spaces, moments of cultural rupture, to rethink and do things differently, and to listen to alternative voices from outside the mainstream proposing hitherto unthinkable solutions – but who are almost always ignored – that radically challenge our take-for-granted worldviews in ways that is impossible through incremental change.

In order to make the best of this opportunity, planners will first have to wake up to the inexorable socio-ecological realities and discontinuities that will transform their identities in the 21st Century and recognise that, as Lovering advised, the best place for many of the policies pursued over the past decades is in the bin.

First to go should be the speculative, pseudo-planning ‘compact city’ doctrine and the much-purported groupthink amongst developers and urban growthists that urban regeneration needs to be hyper-densified in order to be sustainable, but which has thus far failed to regenerate much beyond the bottom-line of the property developers, financiers and consultants.

Alternative pathways abound, leaning on insights from the peripheries of orthodox received wisdom. The City of Amsterdam, for example, has recently adopted a new holistic strategy for transformative urban action based on the pioneering ‘Doughnut Economics’ of British economist, Kate Raworth.

The Amsterdam ‘City Donut’ presents a long-term planning policy vision which seeks to supplant the growth-orientated and competitive commodification of the city with ‘a thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens, while respecting the planetary boundaries’ to tackle climate breakdown and ecological collapse. To this end Amsterdam has joined the Thriving Cities Initiative (TCI), a collaboration between C40, Circle Economy, and Doughnut Economics Action Lab, which works with cities pursuing such a transformation.

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Such dissident thinking, which has long been ‘beyond the pale’ for Irish policy elites, resonates with the open letter, signed by more than a thousand academics and experts from more than sixty countries, calling for Degrowth – a democratically planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy – to be put at the centre of the COVID19 response, to build a more just and sustainable society and prevent further crises.

The Degrowth urban manifesto seeks to give the city back to its people, radically reorganise transport and mobility, (re)naturalise and decommodify the city, and, rather than densify, significantly increase space dedicated to green space, tree cover; biodiversity and urban ecosystems; and public housing, with a focus urban mobility on cycling, walking and public transport. These ideas reflect new ideas emerging ‘post-growth’ planning thought which emphasises, solidarity, wellbeing, connectedness, empathy and a lifestyle based on principles of sufficiency.

Supporting growth and an irrational belief in ever rising asset values has, of course, always been the primary and unquestioned motivation of urban planning. It shall come as no surprise that, just as it was in the aftermath of the 2009 crisis, embracing new ethics and post-materialistic values will be stringently resisted by the old order who, as long as there are no viable alternatives, will engage in predatory delay insisting that the solution to the crisis is to work even harder at business-as-usual. Neoliberal urbanism has, after all, demonstrated extraordinary asymmetric capacity to crimp and contain disconfirming alternatives .

However, these are ideas whose time is coming. Nature is foreclosing our culture. To return to Lovering’s exhortation, planners will not be leading the action here, however “if they can shed the myopic habits of recent years and recapture the broader social and ethical inspirations with which the very concept of planning in modern times began, then planning might once again become worthy of the name”.

We cannot afford to waste the opportunity of crisis once more. Resigned realism is the best way to ensure the least transformative outcome.

Gavin Daly

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